Whether you’re a visiting tourist or seasoned resident of Japan, finding a decent meal if you’re a vegetarian or vegan can be a positively fiendish task.
Though animal products don’t often occupy the plate in the same proportions as they do in the typical meat-and-two-veg Western diet, they are ubiquitous in Japanese cooking, and often turn up in unexpected or unseen places. For example, dashi, the stock that is the foundation of so much Japanese cuisine, is most commonly made with a mix of konbu seaweed (vegetarian) and katsuobushi (skipjack tuna; definitely not vegetarian).
Websites such as The Happy Cow do exist to provide listings of local vegetarian and vegan restaurants, but the most common advice to those seeking to maintain their diets while in Japan still seems to be based on temple stays, where you can dine on shōjin ryōri with Buddhist monks, or confining yourself to a diet of umeboshi– (pickled plum) filled onigiri rice balls from convenience stores. As a temporary fix this might work, but yields food that is at best expensive and inconvenient, and at worst bland and uninspiring.
Yuta Murase and Go Nagatsu, both 25, hope to provide a solution to this problem with AirKitchen Plus, a service they launched in October 2018 to help vegans and vegetarians find places to eat while in Japan. Unlike Happy Cow, AirKitchen Plus doesn’t focus on restaurants: Instead, it aims to connect users with hosts across the country who are happy to provide home-cooked vegetarian and vegan meals for their guests. It is an extension to the pair’s original “sharing service,” AirKitchen, which they started while both still at university in Nagoya.
“Originally we started AirKitchen to provide opportunities for travelers to connect with Japanese hosts,” says Murase. “But we found that many of our customers were using the service to find opportunities to eat vegan and vegetarian food that was more interesting than convenience stores, and so we launched AirKitchen Plus with the specific aim of helping vegans and vegetarians eat in Japan.”
Since its launch, AirKitchen Plus has recruited some 200 hosts spread across the country. These hosts offer everything from fully prepared meals to cooking classes that show guests how to make vegan or vegetarian versions of Japanese dishes such as ramen and katsu (cutlet) curry.
Bookings can be made through the AirKitchen Plus website, where visitors can see each host’s profile, the food they serve, ratings from other guests and directions to the host’s accommodation, including whether the host offers a pickup service from nearby stations. After booking, users can chat with their host to discuss specific dietary requirements before they visit the host’s home to share a meal.
Reservations can typically be made up to four days before the reservation date, though some hosts cater to same-day and next-day bookings. The booking process will feel immediately familiar to those who have used similar sharing services such as AirBnB.
According to Murase, “Hosts are most commonly vegan or vegetarian themselves and provide meals because they recognize the struggle many people go through when trying to be vegan or vegetarian when traveling in Japan.
“It also allows the hosts to make some money on the side in return for the cooking they do,” he continues.
The majority of AirKitchen Plus’ hosts are concentrated around Japan’s major cities, though the service still boasts hosts in 32 of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Hosts are vetted by the service and must provide details of their cooking experience and personal information before their profile becomes public.
The pairs’ ambition doesn’t stop at helping vegans and vegetarians, either.Prior to the Rugby World Cup, Murase hopes to recruit more hosts that serve halal and gluten-free cuisine to expand the service’s offerings to people with a variety of dietary restrictions.